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Cosbys host ‘conversation’ of African-American artworks at the Smithsonian

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    A usually private collection of African-American art went on public display for the first time this week in Washington. And the collectors making the art available are better known than the art itself.

    I sat down with them last week.

    It started with two friends talking about art. One, Johnnetta Cole, is the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. The other, Camille Cosby, an art collector, philanthropist and, as it happens, the wife of comedian Bill Cosby.

    Persuaded that there was a connection between the sculptures and paintings that define African art and the quilts, abstracts and carvings that African-Americans had created out of and since slavery, they set out to combine them. The result, an extensive new exhibit titled "Conversations," combining the Cosbys' African-American collection and the museum's African one, works with common themes, ranging from the spiritual to the political.

    Many of the American artists, from Romare Bearden to Henry Ossawa Tanner, are well-known. Most of the African artists, from Senegal to South Africa to Nigeria, are not. But, side by side, the works mirror one another, a shared experience of memory and family, of nature, of music.

    A massive marble Elizabeth Catlett sculpture commissioned by Bill for Camille features a couple in an embrace, with the faces of their children engraved on the woman's shoulder.

    In its shadow stand two mid-20th century male and female wooden figures from Cote d'Ivoire. Another juxtaposition, a 1978 painting "Benin Head" by American artist David Driskell, and a copper and iron commemorative head of a king from Benin made in the 18th century.

    The works are soaring and small, colorful and spare.

    Camille and Bill Cosby joined me at the African Art Museum to talk about it all.

    Mr. and Mrs. Cosby, thank you so much for inviting us into this amazing exhibition.

    I want to start by asking you — and I will start with you, Camille — when did you start collecting all of this?

  • CAMILLE COSBY:

    We actually collected three years after we were married. We were married in 1964. So this is our 50th year to be married.

    Three years later, 1967, we went to a wonderful gallery. And our first acquisitions were the Charles Whites, the charcoal drawings, the beautiful physiognomies of black people. For example, there's one here in this exhibition of a woman who is pregnant. She represents strength. The bigness is the strength of this female.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    One of the interesting things for those of us who are not even collectors, who just like art, is, we don't think of ourselves as collectors or investors. We just get what we like.

    Were you thinking to yourself when you began this process as investors in art or just getting what you liked?

  • BILL COSBY:

    Well, there's many, many tentacles.

    First of all, Camille and I both had moved up the economic ladder, and so our home had many rooms. And being on another level — I was raised in lower economic, so our artwork, so to speak, would be cutting out a picture in "Ebony" magazine, and then with the Scotch tape putting it on the wall.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I think where a lot of people were first exposed to a lot of African-American art by watching what was in the background on your television programs, and that's something you did consciously.

  • BILL COSBY:

    It was important to me because there's one in Chet Kincaid — and it's in Chet's living room.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That was "The Cosby Show." That was…

  • BILL COSBY:

    They're all "The Cosby Show."

  • GWEN IFILL:

    They all were some versions of that.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • BILL COSBY:

    And I bought it from the fellows. And then I went to — back and forth. And these paintings were maybe $150, things like that, and I just loved it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You know, as we sit in this gallery and look at what you have accumulated over the years, so much of it is high-tone art, and so much of it is very personal, like the quilts we see on the walls. Tell me the story about the quilts.

  • CAMILLE COSBY:

    There are many stories, because there are several quilts in this collection.

    The most profound one, and the most, I guess, feeling one is the one that was done in honor of our son who is now deceased. And there is a group of black women in Port Gibson, Mississippi, who belong to an organization titled the Mississippi Cultural Crossroads.

    And these — when our son died, the women contacted us and asked if we would send our son's shirts or any other article of clothing to them, and they made the quilt that you see in front of you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You talk about connections.

    Mr. Cosby, one of the interesting things is, we are sitting in a museum of African art, not African-American art, yet somehow your African- American art collection seems to connect with the African art here. Is that why you chose this place?

  • BILL COSBY:

    No.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • BILL COSBY:

    You're talking to the wrong Cosby.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • BILL COSBY:

    Let me explain this whole thing.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's explain.

  • BILL COSBY:

    One day, some people came in my house, and they said, "Mrs. Cosby sent us."

    And they walked around, and they were looking at the paintings. And they just kept going. And so I paid no attention to them. Ms. Cosby — and then another house I was in, in Massachusetts, and these same people came. And they were looking all around. And all the paintings were being taken from the houses.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • BILL COSBY:

    And I said to my wife at the time of 49 years, I said, "But nobody asked me."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • BILL COSBY:

    And she said, "Good," and kept walking.

    So, please do not ask me how any of this got here.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • BILL COSBY:

    I just hope I get all my stuff back.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, that's a question, because this feels to me almost like it could be a permanent exhibit, and that you're…

  • BILL COSBY:

    Oh, no!

    (LAUGHTER)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK, you get it back, but…

  • BILL COSBY:

    No, on, no, you don't understand.

    This — these are my friends.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Ah.

  • BILL COSBY:

    And I walk through my house, which used to be our house, I walk through there and there are paintings that — I don't want them — not yet.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    As people come to this exhibit, as they walk though, as it's very warm and it's very engaging, what do you hope that they take away from it?

  • BILL COSBY:

    Our history is lost a bit.

    This does raise the level. This does put the perspective. And people are going to come here and see things that are done in Africa, and be amazed, because, in our societies, we keep people from understanding that and learning that.

  • CAMILLE COSBY:

    I want them to feel the beauty. I want them to feel the — maybe the obstacles that these artists encountered, whether they were racial, or whether they were gender obstacles, or whether — whatever the obstacles were.

    But I also just want them to feel the integrity of the work. I want them to feel the victory of the work, despite it all, just feel the "it," each and every piece.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The color, the curve, the vibe.

  • CAMILLE COSBY:

    Every — the color — yes.

    That's one of the things I love about Elizabeth Catlett, by the way, because when you look at her pieces, her women are full of strength and self-assuredness. And she — you can feel the pride of her blackness and she — and her love for form, the female form, in a very respectful way, not a disrespectful way. I just want people to feel all of that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mrs. Cosby, Mr. Cosby, thank you so much for talking with us.

  • CAMILLE COSBY:

    And thank you.

    Our conversation continues online, where the Cosbys discuss how their art influenced their children, including one daughter whose own work is also part of the exhibit. That's on our Art Beat page.

    The collection remains on view at the Smithsonian through early 2016.

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